Lessons from Leesburg
Motorcycles and Main Street can be a winning combination!
Leesburg, Fl, hosts an annual three-day motorcycle and music weekend that is the largest event of its kind in the country. The Leesburg Bikefest attracts over 300,000 visitors to the Main Street of this town of about 21,000 residents. The weekend before the event, we took a field trip to see how Main Street Leesburg survives the other 362 days of the year. What we found was a pleasant contrast to our Daytona Beach Main Street, and we learned some things that could make our Main Street a year-round destination for both tourists and locals. During Bikefest, Main Street is only open to motorcycles and pedestrians. Itinerant vendors set up along the side streets that radiate from Main, and the stores keep merchandise inside as they normally would. The crowds have enough room on the sidewalk to see the various stores as they go by. These stores sell the same merchandise during Bikefest that they sell the rest of the year. They adjust staffing and at least one eatery condenses their menu for swifter service, but basically it is business as usual, at a frantic pace.
Main Street has a few establishments that serve alcohol, but no "biker bars". The municipality sets up temporary biker bars in multiple venues in town; the Arts Center becomes "The Rathole", and serves alcohol under a temporary license. On Monday morning, the "biker bars" are back to their normal civic functions. The Leesburg Partnership, a cooperative effort of the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Merchants Association and the City of Leesburg, operates Bikefest. Improvements to the downtown area were funded through Community Redevelopment Area that directed increased tax revenue to physical improvements. The Leesburg Partnership is affiliated with the National Main Street Program, a source of technical assistance and training.
Lesson 1: The streetscape matters.
Leesburg gets several things right when it comes to the visual appeal of the street. Colors are soft, with pops of color that draw your eye to different places on the street. The signage for each store is individual in shape and content, but consistent in placement and visual tone. The greenery is well-tended and enhanced by lighting, though no extension cords are visible. It appears in little pockets all along the street, with a similar colors in all areas, though in plantings that complement the size and shape of their location. Several areas invite pedestrians to become a part of the scene through outdoor seating. Streets, sidewalks and storefronts are uniformly clean and well-maintained. The sidewalk aprons are individual to each storefront and are integrated into the style of the store.
Lesson 2: Variety is the spice of life
Leesburg has a wide choices of destinations for the visitor to Main Street. Many of these businesses have been in their current location for years, sometimes for decades. Newer businesses have sprung up to complement the established stores and restaurants. This may be the most difficult lesson for Daytona Beach to take away from Leesburg, because so many of our "native" Main Street businesses have been lost in the push for big "someday" projects. It is possible to seed new businesses, but as Leesburg shows, to be successful in the long-term, they should meet the needs of both tourists and residents.
Lesson 3: Public amenities create inviting public spaces.
Public amenities make a space welcoming to all types of visitors, from a mom looking for an available restroom for her toddler to a senior who wants to rest in the shade before getting in his next 2,000 steps. Leesburg offers public restrooms (clean and unlocked), plenty of tables where you can bring your takeout for lunch or just sit and read. There are benches along the sidewalk, shaded by trees or canopies, all sponsored by private donors. Trash cans are easily available. Electric outlets are off the ground and neatly arranged to supply power to multiple sources for street fairs, food trucks and performers.
Lesson 4: Give side streets some TLC
Outdoor vending during Bikefest is moved to the side streets that cross Main Street. This gives pedestrians easier access to the shops and restaurants that line the street. Looking at the examples above, you can see some key elements that make these side streets appealing places for the vendors to sell their merchandise. These include: 1) clean streets and sidewalks; 2) side facades with the same appearance as the Main Street face of the parcel, that are intact, neatly and attractively painted; 3) closed-off windows and/or doors are accented by architectural elements that make these feature look intentional; 4) sidewalks that continue uninterrupted from the front facade.